Putin spoke to Russia's national legislature on the great event that was the death of Shamil Basayev, the top Chechen jihadist, who is probably now conversing with Zarqawi, Atta, Uday and Qusay, Sheik Yassin on the finer points of where Muhammad screwed up the meaning of "houris" and why the hell is it so hot in here. (Hopefully their Koran study group will soon be expanded to include Osama and/or Saddam.)
But his speech (I have put the full text here) is just ... remarkable. No current or recent American or Western politician speaks like this -- we'd consider him megalomaniacal or a movie dictator. He says he "will lead Russia to glory beyond your imagination." That St. Paul to the Corinthians, not the leader of a secular government talking. There's something almost ... Shakespearean (or more likely Tolstoyan) about speaking of "Russian civilization [having] carried on the legacy of the Roman and Byzantine empires as the crowning achievement of humanity," how Russia "will preserve the Roman flame for the next thousand years," and how "our long war is finally over and a thousand years of peace begins today." There's some bad recent precedent for European regimes making claims on the next 1,000 years.
And surely the warnings about Al Qaeda having been "aided by plutocratic industrialists and even some within our own government," his vow that "the political machinery of Russia will continue to be reorganized into a better guided and directed democracy" and his claims of how federalizing regional governments is necessary to stop the rise of local warlords -- they all probably don't speak well for the future of civil rights and freedom in Russia.
But my favorite line has got to be this: "Our loyal soldiers have contained the insurrection in the North Caucasus and will continue to suppress uprisings throughout the Federation until the language of the Chechen separatists is spoken only in hell!" None of this "winning hearts and minds" crap. Nor does he mince words in blaming those in the Middle East whom Russia thought were its friends. And I wonder what the Russian Civil Liberties Union thinks of such blatant religious imagery (compounded later by "We have been tested before God, but we have come through the crucible and emerged stronger in His eyes for it").
Really, all Vlad needs is his own Leni Riefenstahl, or, for a more Russian precedent, perhaps a Sergei Eisenstein, to film him. He's already got the lines and the "music" down pat. In fact ... Turner Classic Movies recently showed Eisenstein's two IVAN THE TERRIBLE movies. And the thing that strikes the contemporary viewer (I was seeing No. 2 for the first time) was how *far* and *thoroughly* the film takes operatic stylization. It's the closest I've ever seen a non-Japanese thing get to Kabuki theater (see the picture DVD cover for a sense of how anti-realistic a simple closuep is). There's hardly a thing realistic in the films' 200 minutes -- every gesture is outsized and conspiculously "performed," the faces stick out and cast enormous shadows on the walls, the dialog is incantatory and ritualized, the acting self-conscious and Big, the costumes like parodies of royal grandeur. I probably couldn't bear an identical film in English. But since I don't understand Russian anyway, I could enjoy the films as a stylized, outsized opera (understanding the words makes the experience too realistic to bear up under the weight of all this artifice).
What all this critical heavy breathing has to do with Putin is that his rhetoric and style -- its grandiose Ciceronic stylization -- seem to be coming from the same tradition as Eisenstein's films. And the main thrust of the IVAN films' plots had to do with Ivan uniting Russia as an enlightened despot. Some of the things he deals with are an Asiatic rebellion (Tartars, not Chechens, but nevertheless), plots by the boyars (nobility; or in the contmporary case, oligarchs) undermining Russian unity from within, an attempted assassination (Putin alludes to such plots against him in his speech too), and how Ivan crushes the boyars with a private spy network (this part got Eisenstein in trouble with Josef Stalin). Virtually everything Ivan struggles against, Putin alludes to, above and here:
By bringing all of Russia together under one law, one language, and the continued guidance of one individual, the corruption that so plagued our people during the era of Yeltsin will never again take root. Federalizing regional governments will eliminate mindless bureaucracy and petty local tyrants that allowed separatism to go unchecked.
It's not just IVAN THE TERRIBLE. This paragraph ...
[O]ur most cherished beliefs must remain safeguarded. We will defend our ideals by force of arms. We will give no ground to our enemies and will stand together against attacks from within or without. Let the enemies of Russia take heed: those who challenge our resolve will be eradicated from the annals of history.
... is virtually the closing speech that the victorious prince gives at the end of Eisenstein's ALEXANDER NEVSKY. Given the vagaries of translation and movie subtitling, it's close enough that it may even be the speech, or quote from it.